Content warning: some bad language
Camping out in Ollpheist Forest was a tradition most freshmen at Patrick Town University followed at least once, and Cassie Garratt was no exception. Though she had lived in town her whole life, she’d never been this far into the woods, not this late at night at any rate, and never to camp out. But she had promised herself she’d do it, even if she had lied to her mother about it. Margaret Garratt was a stern, God-fearing woman, and she’d been unhappy with her daughter attending such a liberal school - who knew how she’d react to this particular excursion. She hadn’t even allowed Cassie to reside on campus, insisting that she stay home and commute, which wasn’t so bad when it was rent-free but now she was eighteen, she wanted a little more freedom in her life. She had always been a good daughter, a good student… she felt like she needed to live a little more outside of her mother’s control.
As far as Mom knew, she was having a late-night study session with her best friend Angela, far from any trouble she might get into. In reality, she was on her second beer, feeling the effects, staring into the fire at the center of their camp. Almost a dozen freshmen had come out this time, though most of them were taking the opportunity for “alone time” in their respective tents. Cassie and Angela were content hanging out by the fire, enjoying the music from the tiny speaker propped on a log a decent distance from the flames as one of their classmates, David, chatted aimlessly about his major.
“You know it’s all lies, right?”
Cassie looked up from her bottle of illicit beer, staring at David across the flames of the campfire. Beside her, Angela tossed a stick into the fire, smirking over at the other freshman. “What is?” He clicked his tongue, rolling his eyes in exasperation and Angela held her hands up. “Sorry, you’ve been droning on for ages, I was listening to the music.”
“I was talking about the other side of the river,” he explained, obviously frustrated with his lack of audience. “That there’s nothing over there. Professor Brent told me all the stories are just stories to keep the kids out.”
Angela shrugged. “I heard it was haunted.”
Another freshman sat down beside David, reaching across him for one of the s'mores slowly melting on a paper plate. “You tellin’ ghost stories again?” he teased, nudging David with his elbow before shoving the gooey treat into his mouth.
“No,” David grumbled. “There aren’t any ghosts. Professor Brent says the whole area is some sorta conservation thing. That’s why there’s a bridge.”
Cassie spoke up for the first time, voice stuttering as she tried to vocalize her thoughts. “What about the hikers that went missing last year?”
“Ooo, yeah,” Angela agreed, pointing at her friend. “Didn’t they find his foot or something washed up downriver?”
David scoffed. “That was a rumor. And the hikers don’t go missing, they get arrested. Probably put in jail.” He shrugged, leaning forward to poke at the fire with a long twig. “It’s all crap. There’s probably some endangered species over there, that’s why they want to keep us out.”
“Well,” the newcomer to the circle elbowed him again, grinning widely, “why don’t you hop on over and tell us what you find.”
“What?” David stared at him, obviously attempting to think of an excuse. “Don’t be dumb, Lance, I’m not getting arrested for your amusement.”
Lance shrugged, licking his fingers clean of chocolate and marshmallow. “Pussy.”
“I’m not a pussy,” David ground out. “I’m just not an idiot, unlike some people.” He glared at the other boy, nostrils flaring in his anger at the insult. “Why don’t you go?”
Glancing towards the darkness in the direction of the well-known bridge, Lance snorted. His gaze waivered, then flicked to the two girls watching him, and he puffed out his chest, getting to his feet. “Alright.” He moved away, heading for the bridge, and almost immediately, Angela was up and following him.
“Lance!” she called. “Lance, don’t!”
He already had a torch in his hand, the weak light illuminating the bridge ahead of him. “It’s fine, Angela. David says there’s nothing there, right?”
“David could be wrong!” she pleaded, her high-pitched tone catching the attention of several others who, until now, had not been giving them any mind. Cassie rose from her seat, feeling the wobble in her legs from the alcohol but following her friend anyway. “Would you just come back?”
David caught Cassie’s elbow as she swayed, and she smiled at him. “He’s not really gonna go over there, is he?” she whispered, and he shook his head.
“I doubt it.”
Lance was at the bridge now, standing with one hand on the wooden post. He shone the light over into the darkness beyond, about twenty feet from where he was standing, and it did little to show what was there save for trees. Lifting one foot, he planted it on the first wooden plank, only for Angela to suddenly grab him.
“Lance!” she squealed.
A low chant started amongst the other students; “Lance, Lance, Lance -” Cassie kept quiet, clinging to David as she watched the bold freshman step up onto the crossing. The river was calm, only five or so feet below the bridge, babbling away as the teenagers egged their classmate on.
“There’s nothing over there,” Lance assured Angela, who was now white as a sheet and tugging on his jacket. “It’s just a bunch of fairy tales.” He pulled himself out of her grasp, stepping beyond her reach; she covered her mouth with her hand, staring in terror. “Okay, boogeyman,” he called out, shining his torch into the woods again, “I’m coming in.”
The bridge creaked under his careful footsteps, and he kept one hand on the rail as he walked. Halfway across, his torch flickered, making him pause. His classmates continued to chant his name, and he waved at them, giving David a thumbs up.
Cassie looked across the river, gasping sharply when something glittered amidst the trunks. Her grip on David tightened, and he looked down, just as Lance’s torch went out completely, and the fire suddenly died out. The abrupt darkness made the students freak out, and Lance retreated back the way he’d come, colliding with Angela and sending both of them sprawling.
David plied Cassie’s fingers from his arm, moving back to relight the fire. All of the freshmen drew back from the bridge, and Lance, visibly shaken, sat down in the dirt. “That was creepy,” Lance mumbled, inspecting his torch, almost blinding himself when he looked into the bulb and turned it on. “The fu-”
“Maybe we should pack up and head back,” Angela whispered, hugging herself as she retook her seat, glancing at Cassie. “What do you think, Cass?”
“Don’t be silly,” David laughed. “Look, the fire was already getting low, and that torch is old, right?”
Cassie sucked in a breath, remembering what she’d seen. “In the trees,” she mumbled, slowly lowering herself back into her spot beside Angela. “I saw -”
David frowned. “What?”
“I thought… I thought I saw eyes,” she told him quietly but he only laughed.
“It was probably an animal,” he dismissed. “Look, it’s midnight already. We can’t go back and tell everyone we were too frightened to stay out here, can we?”
Lance seemed to consider it, then shook his head. “No way, man. I’m trying out for Theta Alpha.” He got to his feet, striding over to his tent and pulling another case of beer out. “No one needs to know,” he tore open the box and held up a few bottles in offering, grinning as the other students cheered, “am I right?!”
It appeared easy for the gathering to return to the previous party mood, but Cassie couldn’t stop thinking about what she had seen. She kept her worries to herself, plastering a faux smile on her face as the drinking continued into the wee hours, intent on sticking to her plan to have fun because she was supposed to. The freshmen disappeared off to their tents in a steady trickle as the minutes passed, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, and eventually, Cassie decided that sleep would be a better friend than the now drunk Angela and Lance who were beginning to paw at each other. She said her goodnights and crawled into her tent, snuggling down into her sleeping bag in hopes of some rest.
Outside, the music gradually got quieter until it was off entirely, and she closed her eyes, slipping into an almost lucid dream, the sort of sleep where time skips by in chunks but you’re not actually getting any decent shuteye. Every time an owl hooted outside, her eyes snapped open, and on the fifth such occasion, she heard the crunch of leaves, and then a twig snapping, which prompted her to sit up, curious if one of the other students was awake early.
She unzipped her tent enough to peek out, seeing the first rays of dawn filtering through the trees. It was chilly, despite being summer, and she could see dew glistening on the grass and leaves surrounding the camp. A fine mist shrouded everything beyond; she could just about see the bridge across the river. The source of the noise wasn’t immediately apparent, and then she saw them, an indistinguishable figure moving through the trees and towards the wooden crossing, showing no hesitation as they stepped up and walked across.
Her curiosity drew her further out. Was it one of the others, emboldened by the rising light to explore what was beyond the bridge? It didn’t seem quite as intimidating now on the other side, with early morning sunlight highlighting the mist that wove between the trunks. Whoever she had seen, they were gone from sight by the time she reached the bridge, and she didn’t even think as she stepped onto it, craning her neck as if she could see where they had gone.
“Hello?” she called, feeling no fear as she moved a little closer. “Is anyone there?”
No one answered, and she frowned, creeping forward, one hand on the rickety rail as the river rushed underneath her feet.
The hiss of her name made her jump, and as if she realized what she was doing, she backed up, turning her head to see Angela, barefoot in the sweater that Lance had been wearing the night before.
“What the hell?” her friend snapped, and Cassie hurried back to the “safe” side of the river. “Are you crazy?”
“I saw someone,” Cassie insisted, frowning as she glanced back to the forest. “They went into the forest -” Angela was staring at her, eyeing her like she was insane, so she stopped talking, deciding it was probably her imagination. “I guess I was dreaming.”
The other girl kept staring for a moment longer before clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Maybe you drank too much,” she decided, sighing as she reached for Cassie’s hand. “Come on. We may as well start the fire for breakfast.”
They didn’t speak about the incident again, engaging in the remainder of the Patrick Town Freshman Year traditional campout, and when they returned to town, Cassie found it all too easy to lie to her mother about where she had been, hiding her camping gear in the back of her car. Still, she couldn’t shake what she had experienced, and it was only a few days before she had to seek answers. Her first place to ask, like it had been her whole life, was her mother.
She attempted it at dinner the following Saturday. “Mom?”
Sucking in a breath, she ran over the question she’d practiced a hundred times in the mirror. “What’s beyond the river in the forest?”
Her mother’s fork clattered onto the plate. “What?”
The expression on her face was stormy, and Cassie felt a thread of doubt. “T-the river,” she whispered. “Some of the kids at school were talking a-and -”
“It’s dangerous,” her mom snapped, picking up her fork again, though it was obvious her hand was shaking. “You’ve heard what happens to people when they go out there.”
“One of my classmates said it was conservation. That the hikers were arrested.”
It was almost like a cloud descended over the older woman’s face, and when she looked at her daughter, the emotion in her eyes was terrifying. “The devil lives in those woods, Cassandra. You stay away and I don’t want to hear another damn word about it.” Her tone was cutting, and Cassie swallowed down anything else she wanted to say, avoiding her mother’s gaze for the rest of the meal.
Without answers from her parent, she turned to the internet. Google didn’t want to provide anything beyond superstition and scary stories for children, until she came across an article about the area of land itself. One scientist had attempted to penetrate the forest with technology, only to find every drone, every piece of electronic equipment failed before it got more than a few meters, with no explanation other than a natural dampening field, something they had decided was down to minerals in the ground. That answer didn’t satisfy her, and when she finally stopped searching and turned in to sleep, she kept dreaming of the figure, beckoning her across the bridge.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Cassandra. Not for you.”
The voice, oddly disjointed but masculine, echoed in her mind all the way through Sunday, overshadowing even the voice of the priest as she endured mass at her mother’s side. When Margaret disappeared off to do her usual Sabbath rounds, Cassie went home, got into her car, and drove out to Ollpheist Point, where the forest met the highway. She took nothing with her, leaving everything in the car, relying on the midday sun to guide her after deciding her phone would be useless.
At the bridge, she stopped, staring into the darker trees ahead. The canopy almost shielded everything from the sun, even at its height, but she felt no fear. The trees almost felt welcoming, like an old friend waiting to meet her, and without hesitation, she stepped up onto the bridge. Underneath, the river flowed, splashing where it met rock, rushing down the hill to the lake on the other side of town.
A breeze ruffled her hair, coaxing her forward until she was standing at the steps down on the other side. The grass was a brilliant green, and she felt nothing but a sense of calm as she let her feet guide her onto the forbidden bank and towards the densely packed trees.
She didn’t look back.
Darkness fell hours later, and a patrol car pulled up alongside Cassie’s abandoned Prius, finding her phone on the front seat, buzzing with a frantic call from her mother. Though they searched for days, there was nothing to be found of the young freshman, and the list of missing persons in Patrick Town added one more soul, forever lost to the mystery of the forest.
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A fun mystery :) I think the camp scene was well done, and I'm left wondering what happened on the other side. The way her mother reacted makes me think she's got some personal history there. Perhaps in her youth she went out on such a trip and lost someone, which made her turn to religion. Or I'm reading too much into it :) Is it the devil? Is it something more alien, or fae? I suspect the latter, due to the green grass and the focus on the bridge. Maybe a modern take on a troll? But maybe it didn't harm Cassie. Perhaps we'll never know.
i really loved this and i want more!
That was really good! I need to know what is the other side of that bridge!